The curse of being smart

Overcoming imposter syndrome requires self-acceptance: one doesn’t need to attain perfection or mastery to be worthy of the success

Published: 22nd July 2021 11:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th July 2021 02:58 PM   |  A+A-


Being imperfect is not a flaw; it is part of being human.

You must have noticed, there is non-stop internal commentary going on inside your head.
This may not seem such a serious issue, but imagine this scenario:Your boss is heaping praise on you, ‘Well done for landing the project. You were well-organised, leading the team, managing the project, and locking the deal with the client. I will recommend you for a promotion. 

Keep it up!’
While you stand there nodding, smiling, thanking your boss, in your mind you are thinking, ‘But, I didn’t do anything special. I was lucky, everything happened to fall into place on its own! My boss has high expectations of me, this means I have to do even more to prove my worth... he thinks I am highly skilled.’

And then the voice in your head continues, ‘Oh no, he’s going to discover that I am really not all that great, and then the truth will come out, everyone will know that I am a fake...’
Everyone experiences bouts of self-doubt. But because the imposter voice inside us has insanely high self-expectations, the self-doubt is chronic. Despite multiple awards, accolades, and achievements, rather than congratulate themselves, the person suffering from imposter syndrome will put their success down to luck, timing or even an error in judgement from their employer.

Imposter syndrome implies, to an extent, that we do not trust our own abilities. It is not just a lack of confidence but an underestimation of achievements. Comparison is at the heart of impostor syndrome and, as the saying goes, comparison is the thief of joy. When people have imposter syndrome, they are slow to internalise accomplishments, but quick to see through the lens of failure. They might be very successful and even might over-achieve on a regular basis. And yet, deep down, they may feel scared of being unmasked anytime. 

This syndrome goes beyond a mere lack of confidence. This failure to accept one’s own accomplishments can prove problematic, especially when one wants to make major career strides. If you’re continually fearful that you don’t measure up, it becomes difficult to make the most of your potential. You may hesitate to put yourself forward for a position or promotion that you really deserve. 
The imposter syndrome persists in the corporate world predominantly because of the impulse to outshine others and to hide weaknesses. Academics, celebrities, and even high-profile individuals have experienced this chronic doubt of their own skills and abilities. 

It is often referred to as the ‘curse of the smart people’ because the smarter you are, the more you doubt yourself. However, this doesn’t happen to everyone, you won’t find the bus driver complaining about imposter syndrome, that he’s been ‘faking it’ and cannot really drive a bus. This syndrome afflicts a select type of mindset, the kind that is chronically over achieving in every area of their lives, including relationships, where a man finds the perfect woman, but feels that ‘he’s not good enough’ for her, and she deserves better.

Being imperfect is not a flaw; it is part of being human. In our hyper-competitive environment, every social media or work or relationship update gives us a feel of what we lack in our own lives. Therefore, the chronic sense of not measuring up afflicts us in many ways.
Dr Valerie Young, leading expert on imposter syndrome, offers the following five types of imposters based on how competence is understood.

• The perfectionist believes if there’s any flaw, it’s ruined.
• The expert believes if you don’t know it all, then you’re a failure.
• The soloist believes they must accomplish any task alone for it to count as success.
• The natural genius believes any struggle felt in learning new skills or handling different tasks is shameful.
• The superhuman believes they must perform all the roles in their professional and personal life, perfectly, or they don’t measure up.

Dr Young says that changing the way one feels is difficult but changing our thought processes helps in overcoming this inner conflict. Beliefs are not facts; they are not set in stone. We can change the way we think about ourselves as much as we can change how we perceive others. Compassionately challenging one’s own words and feelings of lack of confidence can be a healthy way to increase one’s sense of wholeness over time.

Overcoming imposter syndrome requires self-acceptance: one doesn’t need to attain perfection or mastery to be worthy of the success. Nor is it about lowering the bar, it is about resetting it to a realistic level that doesn’t leave one feeling inadequate and forever overreaching. 
We learn much more from our experiences when we reflect on what we’ve done. You are good at what you do. Once you accept that you are skilled and recognise your accomplishments, you can enjoy the accolades, you really do deserve it.

Shobha Nihalani has just published Reboot, Reflect, Revive: Self-esteem in a Selfie World with SAGE Publications India


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